Ancient ‘Cities in the Sky’: Where geology becomes destiny

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Into the precipitous tufa cliffs of the Puye mesa, ancient people carved shallow caves as dwelling places with staircases and walkways to connect them.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Atop the mesa, free-standing buildings of Puye Pueblo have survived for centuries due to their durable construction and the dry climate. Thousand-year-old timbers support ceilings and upper floors and their shadows form intricate patterns on the ruined walls.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The ground at Puye is littered with obsidian fragments and with thousands of fragments of pottery from different time periods in the pueblo’s history.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The unearthly landscape around Acoma Pueblo is studded with mesas, buttes, and pinnacles eroded over millennia from thick layers of sandstone.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

From a distance, the adobe dwellings of Acoma look like jagged boulders piled atop the mesa.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The beautiful church of St. Estaban is a masterpiece of adobe architecture.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

In the Acoma visitors’ center are cases displaying the intricately-painted pottery for which the pueblo has long been famous.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Traditional dwellings in Acoma has upper levels accessed by ladders. The ones on the right are topped with struts carved to represent thunderbolts.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Reservoirs like this one supplied ancient residents with water from rain and snowmelt. Next to it is the only tree that grows on the mesa.

Northern New Mexico and the “Four Corners” area of the Southwest are dotted with ruins of the ancient pueblo people whose sudden evacuation of their traditional villages some 800 years ago constitutes a major mystery in the archeology of pre-Columbian America.

Modern pueblo people have oral traditions that connect their ancestors, often grouped under the term “Anasazi,” to many of these ruins. These ancients occupied thousands of settlements, extensive or miniscule, in the high desert, many remnants of which are surprisingly well-preserved in the intensely dry climate.

The majority are cliff dwellings but a great number are freestanding buildings sometimes of three or four stories, all constructed from the local bedrock. Many clues seem to point to the fact that they were abandoned with stunning suddenness.

To enter a dilapidated dwelling in one of the crumbling ruins with a guide or on an unaccompanied hike and find household goods such as smashed pottery, broken corn grinders, and even remnants of last meals is to be confronted with a situation suggesting very sudden abandonment coupled with actions intended to prevent any future occupants from making use of the contents.

The Anasazi did not have a written language and only the ruins and the thousands of enigmatic paintings and carvings on rock — known respectively as pictographs and petroglyphs — offer scientific clues to the sudden abandonment.

Timbers of ancient tree trunks incorporated into the ruins indicate that around 1200 A.D. the Southwest was hit by a devastating century-long drought that might have provoked widespread conflict among the pueblos.

Archeological digs in the last 50 years have begun to uncover evidence not only of terrifyingly brutal raids but of cannibalism as well. These discoveries are jarring compared to the politically-correct image of the ancestral people of the Southwest living peaceful, harmonious lives — but as the author of a National Geographic article on the Anasazi wrote some years ago, the ancient people did not live their lives for the approval of 21st-Century sensibilities.

And yet in some quarters — particularly among the Navajo people — the very word “Anasazi” has come to be politically charged. A term with Navajo origin, it is said that it can be translated as either “ancient ancestors” or “ancient enemy.”

The latter rendering offers support to the oral traditions among some pueblo people that the predecessors of the Navajo descending from their ancient home in Canada drove them from their homes and villages.

But the actual events are far in the past and archeological evidence is ambiguous. In any event, whatever the cause of the sudden and mysterious migration, the inhabitants of the prehistoric stone dwellings seem to have fled mainly to the south of their traditional homelands to become the ancestors of today’s pueblo people.

Puye Cliff Dwellings

One of the more impressive abandoned ancient sites lies an hour’s drive northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is known as the Puye Cliff Dwellings which the people of the modern Santa Clara Pueblo identify as their ancestral home.

Pronounced “POO-yay,” the ruins are situated on a lofty mesa just east of a gigantic volcanic crater known as the Valles Caldera that resulted from a devastating eruption around 1.2 million years ago. The eruption formed vast layered beds of soft rock known as pumice and tufa as well as the black volcanic glass obsidian, which have eroded into hills and mesas.

The softness of the pumice and tufa made it easy to carve shallow caves and stairways into the strata while the obsidian could be worked into knives, spear points, and arrowheads.

In addition, the base of the cliffs and the top of the mesa were deeply littered with shattered angular rocks that could be stacked into walls and mortared with mud to produce free-standing single- or two-story dwellings or used to line the partially-underground sacred spaces called kivas. Their geometric shapes and the shadows that fall on them in the harsh desert sunlight create a curiously contemporary look suggestive of cubist and minimalist art.

The top of the mesa is littered with fragments of pottery from different eras, many of them showing complex, colorful designs, as well as flakes of obsidian left from cleaving arrowheads and knives from larger chunks of the rock. Since these materials were used by their ancient forebears, modern pueblo people regard them as worthy of respect and visitors are urged not to remove them.

But contemporary pueblos have different explanations for why the fragments are there. Some claim that, since they came from the earth in the first place, the respectful thing is to allow them to return to the ground, while others will insist that the ancient inhabitants smashed their household items upon deserting their ancestral homes to prevent invaders from making use of them, just as many archeologists have argued.

Native American guides at Puye tell visitors that the ancient builders chose the location because its steep surrounding cliffs made it easily defensible, a site that would be abandoned only under great pressure — seeming to support the latter interpretation of the ubiquitous fragments.

Puye today is a barren place — parched, and exposed to the unforgiving New Mexican sun. As with many other ancient sites in the Southwest, the nearest water source is a small stream at some distance from the base of the mesa.

The thought of the women of Puye hauling water in jugs up steep steps and ladders to reach the top while the men trudged into the far green hills of the caldera in search of game rapidly destroys any romantic notion of the lives these people led, which from all archeological evidence was, as the cliché goes, “brutish and short.”

And yet, the stark elegance of the ruins and the intricate designs on the pottery fragments speak of a creative sensibility that even the harshness of daily life in Puye could not squelch.

Acoma Pueblo

An hour’s drive west of the city of Albuquerque on Route 40 is Acoma, another pueblo with an ancient history. Where the side road leading to it departs from Route 40, it first passes clusters of modern houses with air-conditioning units and satellite TV dishes — signs of the affluence brought to the contemporary Acoman people by the presence of a casino.

The road next traverses miles of evocative New Mexican scenery: steep, rolling, sandy hills fragrant with wild sage, dotted with junipers, pinyon pines, and the beautiful but poisonous datura; but it then passes into an almost unearthly world of jagged buttes, pinnacles, and mesas eroded from great strata of red and tan sandstone deriving their tints from oxides of iron.

Acoma Pueblo — known as “Sky City” — emerges slowly from the landscape, first appearing to be a scattering of enormous cubical and rectangular blocks of the sandstone scattered across the top of a mesa above precipitous cliffs. Closer, the blocks acquire tiny windows and what appear to be spindly ladders climbing to smaller blocks perched atop larger ones.

From the Acoma Visitor Center, a modern paved road ascends the mesa in a series of broad curves.  Unlike Puye and the thousands of other prehistoric sites scattered across the Southwest, Acoma Pueblo is still occupied.

The people of Acoma have a long history that begins — as with the stories of so many of the pueblos — in times cloaked in legend and mystery. East of the mesa on which Acoma sits is another rocky citadel known as “Haika” and, according to tribal legend, it is the ancestral home of the people of Acoma.  Regarded as sacred, Haika is off-limits to everyone, including — and perhaps especially — to archeologists and hikers.

At some point in the past, according to oral tradition, the Acomans left their legendary ancient home for reasons mysterious and moved to their present home in the sky on which they have dwelt for at least 1,000 years. There followed times of both peace and turmoil, climaxing in the revolt against their Spanish conquerors known as the Pueblo Rebellion.

Incensed by the Spaniards’ enslavement of their people and by forced conversion to Catholicism, the people of Acoma and other pueblos rose up and drove the Spaniards from their lands. And yet — paradoxically — the proud Acomans and the citizens of many modern-day pueblos are intensely religious, mixing fervent Catholicism with elements of their traditional religions in ways that — like Haika — are off-limits and mysterious to non-pueblo people often known collectively as “Anglos.”

The beautiful church dedicated to Saint Estaban (Saint Steven) is proudly displayed as the spiritual center of Acoma Pueblo. The church is constructed of the local sandstone and mortar, is fitted with wooden supports and railings carried from many miles away, and is covered in adobe formed from mud mixed with wild grasses; hence, it echoes the Biblical “bricks with straw” of the captive Hebrews in Egypt.

Acoma has been famous for centuries for its intricately-decorated, thin-walled pottery that is still sold by individual craftspeople and in the galleries of Santa Fe. The pottery is molded from a deposit of clay reputed to be over five miles from Acoma, and, like the artisans of all of the pueblos, these artisans keep the sources of the clays carefully guarded secrets.

A large sampling of traditional Acoman pieces is displayed in a museum in the pueblo’s visitors’ center. From there, guided tours ascend the mesa, with travelers riding in air-conditioned vans that seem to move through time as well as space, for atop the mesa the traditional dwellings have changed little over a thousand years and give a clear idea of what the great citadels of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly must have looked like before their sudden abandonment.

The adobe dwellings climb to two or three stories, accessed by sturdy ladders joined at their tops by beams carved to evoke thunderbolts symbolically.

Some of the individual houses of “Sky City” are hundreds of years old, and none have electricity, central heating, air-conditioning, or indoor plumbing. Several shallow reservoirs carved into the largely impermeable sandstone were used by the ancient occupants to hold rainwater and snowmelt.

However, concessions to basic necessities have been made: vans transport water for drinking, cooking, and washing to the inhabitants, space heaters and wood stoves provide heat for cooking and warmth, and a series of porta-potties are maintained by the pueblo.

The thick adobe-covered walls of the residences hold in heat in winter and keep the interiors relatively cool in the sometimes fierce summer heat — and then, the high elevation of the pueblo frequently provides a cooling breeze. But in other ways those Acomans who have not left the mesa for modern comforts — numbering today only about 15 — are indeed living the ways of their ancient predecessors. 

On the other hand, on the occasion of major religious feasts and tribal celebrations, hundreds of Acoman people return to their ancestral homes on the mesa and also live for a time as their ancestors lived and keep alive tribal traditions.

Unlike the guides at Puye who readily assert that the mesa top was selected for purposes of defense, docents at Acoma explain that their high mesa was chosen because it brought the inhabitants above the rugged surroundings and closer to the sky and to the stars that were such a source of wonder and mystery to the ancient people.

Perhaps both explanations are correct. The view from “Sky City” reveals an ancient landscape sculpted from thick strata of colorful sandstone eroded into bewitching shapes by the agents of water, wind, and ice, the subject of many tribal stories that are closely guarded from “Anglos.”

But the proud people of Acoma are happy to share much of their heritage with the outside world during times of major feasts and celebrations.

Acoma on Christmas Eve is legendary throughout central and northern New Mexico. Hundreds of the pueblo people gather on the mesa for midnight Mass at St. Estaban and for visits with friends and family — and the night echoes with ancient songs.

Then the road ascending to the top of the mesa and the roofs of family dwellings are lit with many thousands of “farolitos,” the iconic Southwestern Christmas decorations made from small paper bags lit by candles within, and the twinkling lights of the farolitos mingle with the stars in the clear New Mexican night.

And then, even Anglos understand why Acoma is called “Sky City.”